- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 22, 2011

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — The Algerian president’s office agreed Tuesday to lift a 19-year state of emergency in a bid to defuse spiraling and potentially dangerous discontent across the nation.

The office of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika said the president had approved a government decision earlier in the day to lift the restrictive measure, put in place by the army in February 1992 to combat Islamist extremists.

The brief statement said the change was “imminent” but gave no date.

Lifting the measure is a two-step process. The ordinance — which does not pass through parliament — that put the state of emergency in place must be replaced with another.

“This [new] ordinance will enter into practice as soon as its imminent publication in the Official Journal,” the brief statement said.

The state of emergency bans large gatherings and demonstrations throughout the country, though protests have been tolerated at times outside the capital. It also increased the powers of police and regional governors.

It was not immediately clear just how generous authorities will be in putting Algeria on a new footing. However, they have indicated that a ban on street demonstrations in the capital could be maintained, making the change but a partial victory for opposition forces and civil society who have long demanded it be done away with — partly in hopes they can hold protests.

The announcement followed a government meeting aimed at finding ways to placate an increasingly restless population in this North African country that is riddled with corruption and flush with oil and gas wealth that has failed to trickle down to citizens.

Lack of housing, social protection, low wages and joblessness, particularly among the nation’s youth, have led to strikes across numerous sectors, from health professionals to students and the judiciary. In each case, riot police moved in to break up the protests — as they did during two attempted marches over the past two weeks by an umbrella group seeking a peaceful transition to democracy.

Mr. Bouteflika was widely expected to address the nation this week to announce more measures likely directed at the nation’s youth — up to 75 percent of the population of some 36 million.

However, critics say that only profound change can allow citizens to reap the benefits of an era of calm.

“You can lift a state of emergency, but there won’t be a change in the freedoms for Algerians,” said sociologist Nasser Djabbi. “Here, we can have written laws, but they’re not applied.”

The state of emergency was put in place as the insurgency began building after the army canceled the nation’s first multiparty elections in 1992 to thwart a likely victory from a now-outlawed Muslim fundamentalist party. The violence spiraled into massacres and all-out war between security forces and extremists with simple citizens caught in the middle. Some 200,000 people were killed.

Aomar Ouali in Algiers contributed to this report.